Tomorrow the Balkans come back into play. The immediate issue is the future of Kosovo, which has spent more than seven years now as an ill-defined international protectorate - to the dismay of Kosovar Albanians, who want independence, and of Serbs, who long to have the province back under their control. A larger question has to do with the continuing aftershocks from the collapse of European communism.
The U.N. special envoy for Kosovo is to present his long-awaited plan for the province's future to the six-nation Contact Group tomorrow in Vienna. It comes after months of negotiations - which might be characterized as all but fruitless - and a calculated delay until after last Sunday's Serbian parliamentary election, in which the nationalists continued to do very well but not well enough to form a government.
The plan reportedly calls for something that closely resembles sovereignty, but with a continuing international presence and a promise of protection for the Serbs who still live in Kosovo.
The plan is supposed to go on to the United Nations for approval. But if the Serbian government in Belgrade objects, Russia has promised to veto the proposal. If, however, the plan is dropped, it is fairly clear that serious unrest will grip the Kosovar Albanians and that the U.N. administration there will be ill-equipped to deal with it - and that the U.S., which has been the Kosovar Albanians' biggest champion, will be accused of betraying their cause.
The U.S. has been most interested in pushing for a decision on Kosovo's status. Russia, reasserting some of its old power and concerned about parallels with its own breakaway Muslim region, Chechnya, has discovered in the Balkans an arena in which to show that it must be reckoned with. Europeans have started to equivocate over Kosovo, alarmed about the risk of conflict and about confrontation with Russia. There is also concern that Bosnia, so carefully stitched together in 1995, might fall apart if the world approves of Kosovo's secession from Serbia.
This calls for firm but careful diplomacy by Washington. The U.S. should push forward with the U.N. plan, though not recklessly or according to any timeline, while rounding up European support and offering rewards to Serbia, where the more sober politicians do at least understand that Kosovo in the end is unrecoverable. Blandishments to Belgrade may be what it takes - but if they stave off a Balkan breakdown, they'll be worth it.